Alex Caruso is a far cry from the answer to the Los Angeles Lakers’ problems. With that said, re-signing him would help this team moving forward.
While the 25-year-old doesn’t project as a future starter, his recent success has shown reason enough for him to remain with the team as the front office inevitably rebuilds around LeBron James this summer.
Against the Los Angeles Clippers, he had 32 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five three-pointers. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he had 23 points, six assists, four steals and shot a perfect four-of-four from deep. As the Lakers won both of those games, Caruso strengthened his case for a long-term deal.
It’s very unlikely that Caruso would ever become a starter for Los Angeles, but it could be good to have him as a reserve with how accurate he’s been from beyond the arc. He can provide spacing and give the team a reliable option to occasionally pair with James.
Caruso, who averaged 19.0 points per game for the South Bay Lakers last season, has been one of the few positive takeaways from an otherwise tough season for the Purple and Gold – especially down the stretch.
During the 147 minutes he was on the floor with James, the squad outscored their opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions. That was their sixth-best net rating of all two-man lineups for the Lakers that appeared for at least 100 minutes. Caruso was 5-of-12 (41.7 percent) from three-point range when sharing the court with James.
Caruso has shown extreme comfort and confidence specifically with above-the-arc threes. He has connected on an extraordinary 20-of-33 (60.6 percent) on his non-corner outside looks. That ranks as the best in the league among all players who have taken at least five total attempts.
Overall, Caruso is averaging 1.58 points per possession (98th percentile) on his unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts. Among all players in the Western Conference who have had at least 15 opportunities on this play type, only three have been more efficient. No other player on the Lakers ranked in the 75th percentile or better.
While there’s a much bigger sample size for higher-volume players, his field goal percentage on these looks (52.6 percent) compares well to sharpshooters around the league like Stephen Curry (52.3 percent) and Buddy Hield (52.8 percent) this season. One might assume this would regress toward the mean with more playing time and against more serious competition, but the skill set is certainly there.
This is especially important because Los Angeles ranked last overall in the NBA on unguarded shots from the catch, averaging 1.04 PPP. They scored 11.2 points per game on these opportunities, which trailed every team in the West except the Phoenix Suns.
Before this season, though, teams led by James have always thrived when given these chances. When he drives to the basket, he’ll typically draw a second defender, leaving an open man on the perimeter (as shown above).
Perhaps the fatal flaw for the Lakers, however, is that no one (outside of the recent flashes from Caruso) was able to consistently step up when the four-time MVP found them for such open three-pointers.
Looking back at recent teams with James, Cleveland ranked as one of the most efficient teams in the league taking unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts during each of his recent four years on the Cavaliers. In fact, his team was actually the most efficient in the Eastern Conference for three seasons in a row —highlighted by an NBA-best 15.8 points on these attempts back in 2016-17.
While most remember Kyle Korver as the main beneficiary, LeBron’s former Cleveland teammate Jordan McRae was actually one of the NBA’s most accurate (93rd percentile) shooters on unguarded catch-and-shoot looks that season.
Miami was also the most efficient team in the East on this play type in 2012-13 (1.21 PPP) while also leading all teams (18.3 PPG) in scoring from these looks as well.
Most fans recall Shane Battier and Ray Allen as the three-point shooters most impacted by James on Miami. But the Heat also received a ton of help from Mike Miller, who ranked in the 92nd percentile on unguarded looks from the catch that year as well.
Caruso is currently on a two-way contract that the Lakers could easily convert to a full, multi-year NBA deal.
As a restricted free agent, his cap hold projects at $1.6 million for the Lakers. That amount wouldn’t prevent them from making a splash in free agency and it would be significantly cheaper than signing another sharpshooter who may require more playing time.
This means the front office could retain him while also adding other threats from beyond the arc who could fit in the rotation for Los Angeles (such as upcoming free agents Seth Curry and Wayne Ellington, for example).